Now aged 50, Martha came from Tanzania at the age of 15 to marry a Maasai in Oloitokitok. Since the death of their cattle from drought she and her three co-wives have been growing vegetables for family consumption and to sell. She has difficulty in making enough money. Credit schemes run by women’s groups are her only means of outside support.
Martha is frustrated that the poor remain poor. She claims that money for development is embezzled – “only a few enrich themselves” – and that the government only takes an interest when elections are looming.
Martha is nostalgic about her early life in Tanzania and disapproves of some local customs. She has reluctantly followed “orders from above” to circumcise her daughters, but did not take part in any celebratory rituals. AIDS is a “major threat” because of “men marrying several wives and still being unfaithful [to them]”.
I was born…in Tanzania – Gombo…in 1957 and then I got married in 1972 and came here. I was blessed with eight children and God continued giving my husband more wives later on. In the homestead currently we are four wives… You know the Maasai will take many wives when they have plenty of cattle. They say that one woman is not able to take care of all the riches: the cattle. So the husband decides to marry many wives. Traditionally they actually do not know how to till the shamba (farm) but they just take care of the cattle, which is their most important task…
Life in Tanzania
In Tanzania we were never given hard tasks to do. We used to do a few chores and on Saturday we went for outings. Even on Sundays, as long as you have completed your tasks, you can go for outings – but make sure that when darkness falls you are already home! By six in the evening…if you are not yet home you are required to sleep where you had gone for the outing.
If you had gone to visit your grandmother and you got late you just stayed there and the next day she took you home. We were not allowed to sleep at others’ homes and neighbours’ places. If you did that you would be punished severely and even miss a meal for that day or two. We were required to stay at home and help our parents. Girls were not allowed to play with boys. We were protected all the time and advised against it…
In Tanzania they had respect; not like here. They never used to allow sex before marriage. You just dated someone until the day you got married. Girls could even reach 30 while still dating, but no sex was allowed until they got married.
“Here they live a haphazard life”
When I got married here, I found life to be quite different…
Here they live a haphazard life. It all depends if you are a Moran (male Maasai ‘warrior’). There are these young girls who have set aside some houses where they indulge in sex with Morans… [It still happens], especially in the deep rural areas. The girls cannot choose which Moran to sleep with, and at the end of the day they do not date them, nor do they get married. You know when you have reached the marrying age you will not date those girls you had sex with.
Your father is the one responsible for looking for a wife for the son – even if it is an old couple – because that is where they get the dowry. One day the father of the girl will tell her to “get out” as “your husband is waiting for you there”. He tells her that the man waiting outside is his choice and no questioning is allowed. Even if you don’t like the person you just cry but go anyhow, and life goes on.
[Circumcision of girls is still practised], although the ones who are uncomfortable about it are allowed to stay uncircumcised… There were orders from above that required us to circumcise [our] girls. As for me I don’t do the rituals. They go to the hospital and come back but I don’t do the party for them.
“Now you have to work extra hard”
We wives went to an agricultural school, water shortage problems arose, and our cattle died. It became difficult to farm because the shambas (farms) had no water. We decided to continue growing a few vegetables for a while. Life became unbearable and some of our children could not go to school…
I still plant some vegetables just here at home… I have an eight-acre piece of land with only a little water on it as the supply has reduced. I till it in order to get something to eat. The water comes from a stream originating in a nearby forest. The water is channelled into three holes and distributed to all the residents in turn… Every month we are required to clean the drainage holes. As you can see, they have been cemented, although the work is not complete.
In the earlier days life was a little bit better. For instance, when my husband got some money he would bring it so that we could count it together but since he married the other wives I have not seen a single cent. When you ask him for something he becomes arrogant. You now just have to work extra hard to feed your children.
He actually does not assist me like before. What I do is I sell the vegetables, then sometimes when I don’t have any money I ask for a small loan from friends, and once you earn some money you pay it back. Then you start afresh, because you cannot stay without soap, oil etc. You sometimes buy stuff in the shop on credit.
We have some women’s groups which provide loans and we start small businesses… These groups usually start small and they grow to as many as 50 women. Once you are given your share you can decide to do something constructive with it, such as buying school uniforms for the children… We usually start off with a small thing, like buying cups for one person, and then bigger things follow suit…
“AIDS is the major threat”
AIDS is the major threat here. This is because of men marrying several wives and still being unfaithful. He goes out there and brings the virus to the rest of the wives and this is trouble. You cannot know the person who is infected. You cannot start saying that this one is good and the other infected because assumptions can be dangerous. Only God will help us.
For now I cannot be certain [who has HIV and AIDS] because when a person goes for testing they go alone and when they return they don’t go around telling everyone their status – people fear stigmatisation. You can only trust yourself. I once went for testing and I was told to go with my husband – who refused, saying he was busy. He did not like the idea of being tested every three months… I was told that I was negative.
There are [organisations trying to help us combat HIV and AIDS]. For instance, there is one that has been here for the past three years, they are Americans and they are staying at Birigani. People go there for treatment. They sometimes use motorbikes and take the medicine to people in their homes, especially the ones that are severely ill. They don’t treat any other disease; they only deal with HIV and AIDS and tuberculosis.
If you have some other illness like malaria you are directed to the hospital… We have dispensaries, private hospitals, and it all depends on the type of sickness. You are sometimes required to pay only 20 shillings, which is very cheap. You are then given medicine and you go home. [People with disabilities?] Sometimes the church is responsible for taking care of them. On the government side, we have not seen any help that has been forthcoming…
“More people are getting educated”
There are several schools. Nowadays there are many because more private schools have been constructed – although these can only be accessed by people who have money. During the previous government life was a little bit harder because we had to pay for primary education, but nowadays that is free and more people are getting educated… Even much older children have decided to go to primary school because it is free… Only recently has my husband taken the children to school…
Two of [my children] have finished Form 4, the last year of secondary school… [The oldest child] did not attend school. At that time we had difficulties and thus he could not go to school. Two are still in primary school, right here in Kimana… I still try hard to educate them but it is quite difficult. The ones who have finished Form 4 are just idling at home. Unemployment is too high; they just look for casual employment here and there.
“We are actually voiceless”
I want to see some development because there is none here. For instance, many children have finished school and they need to go to colleges. There are high levels of unemployment and many of them stay at home.
The CDF (Constituency Development Fund) is available, but only a few enrich themselves. The people who are responsible for handling the money are corrupt and they use it to develop their homes. They also build some schools, which they later claim were constructed by individuals. When you require a bursary they tell you that the funds aren’t yet available and that it is only limited, and at other times you are told that it has already been distributed.
You are taken round in circles until you decide to stop asking… They claim that bursaries can only be given to orphans. There are several widows but none is ever assisted in any way… They never call any meetings. They fear that we will expose their secrets… We are actually voiceless.
[Decisionmaking?] The chief is responsible… sometimes when he hears that some people want to dethrone him he calls for a baraza (public meeting). [Laughs] We also have a woman activist who ensures that our cattle are immunised. We have a court at the chief’s place and we pay some money for our cases to be judged. [Without money] their case will not be solved…
[Do women have power?] None. Although there was one politician and activist here in Oloitokitok called Mary Ndivilit, but since she died no other woman has come up as strong as she was.
“The MPs are failing us”
You know since our MP died we have been having more trouble as we have no ear to listen to our problems… The new one does not assist in any way. He just tells you that he doesn’t have time… When [the former MP] died the road construction stopped and we are just waiting to see what happens, as they said they will start again in April.
You know this is an election year and campaigns are on the increase – and this is the only time you will hear them mentioning development projects. Once they have been voted back in parliament you will not see them here. Recently – when there was an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever – that’s when I saw the government concerned about our cattle. Although very many cattle succumbed to the illness…
There’s poverty [here] – because out of a hundred people only one is rich… You will find that the Kikuyus who live nearby are rich and they own big businesses. But the rest live by the grace of God… For the Maasai cattle are the source of wealth. Once your cattle die of disease, you remain poor.
[The government] has provided some food but it is not sustainable. I cannot blame the government entirely, but our MPs are the ones failing us.
I am just an average person. God has provided me with food to eat and I don’t have to go begging. You know, just being given enough, but not being rich, is just OK…
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.